It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the windows of all the houses on Capitol Ave., all excepting Vicie Washington’s home, where the windows were perpetually shuttered, as is the custom with whorehouses. An excited Vicie, just 10 years of age, scurried up the steps of the two-story brick mansion at no. 2719, and into the arms of her adoptive mother, Lucile Laporte, who had a reputation for having the most beautifully decorated Christmas tree in all of Houston. She also had a reputation for being the city’s most notorious madam, but of this young Vicie was quite ignorant. All she knew of was the promise given by Lucile, a white bordello owner, to a black maid whom she employed. This was Vicie’s mother, who spent her days washing and ironing the many sheets and towels regularly required by a house of prostitution.
“Should anything ever happen to me, you promise me you’ll take care of little Vicie,” her mother had entreated Lucile. This was during the darkest days of the Depression, back when the whorehouse was still on Howard Street in the Fourth Ward, or “Houston’s sinporium,” as a Post scribe termed it, “a hush-hushed red-light district of chandeliered magnificence and contrasting filth.” Nevertheless, Lucile vowed to do as Vicie’s mother requested, not thinking that the woman would drop dead of a stroke three months later. And so, Lucile—née Sadie Sercomb—took in little Vicie, who became a perpetual source of radiance in the whorehouse, as well as a surrogate sister to the many fallen women, all of them white, who worked there.
Today, a large ornate mirror in the parlor is the only reminder of what is arguably the greatest house of prostitution in Houston’s history: a grand den of iniquity Lucile euphemistically termed the Jack Davis Hotel, a place she was forced to create after the city raided her former establishment. Determined to provide a home for herself and little Vicie, and equally determined to replicate a hitherto successful business model, Lucile moved to the Warehouse District in the late 1930s, reportedly with the assistance of a consortium of wealthy local businessmen and politicians. There she would successfully run a patently illegal enterprise in plain sight for a quarter century, during which time she grew wealthy enough to live comfortably and fund Vicie’s degree at TSU, which led to a long career in the Air Force for her adopted daughter.
Hers was a special childhood, remembered Vicie, and no time of year is more special for a child than Christmas. Lucile would wait for Vicie to run up those steps, watching from a peephole in her bedroom, and then run out to welcome her home. The door would open to music from a grand piano in the parlor. Above it hung the grand old mirror and around it stood Vicie’s surrogate sisters, some dressed in furs for an evening at the Petroleum Club or some other swank nightspot, others dancing suggestively with the gentleman callers they hoped to lead upstairs to one of Lucile’s rooms, each tastefully done Art Deco-style. These cribs, as Lucile precociously termed them, were each extensively soundproofed and outfitted with electric buzzers, Lucile’s way of keeping tabs on her inventory. An ingenious and complex system of chutes delivered spent laundry to the servants’ area in the rear of the first floor, where Vicie’s mother had once worked.
Lucile lived into her mid-90s, dying in 1985, more than two decades after Vicie had talked her into closing the business, which was becoming too closely identified with the drug trade. Vicie lived on Capitol with her autistic son and six dogs for 20 years after the bordello closed. She joined Lucile in the grave in 2004 at the age of 78, by which time real estate investor Jim Ohmart had bought her old home from her and the co-owner, Lucile’s son, who interestingly was raised not by his mother but his grandparents. Ohmart also had a chance to meet Vicie before she died, whereupon he obtained a priceless artifact of local licentiousness, Lucile’s scrapbook.
Ohmart let us peruse it in Lucile’s old parlor recently, where we found portraits of her charges, some taken professionally at Foley’s or Joske’s. Vicie told Ohmart that these were taken at the stores after hours, which, given that the women were nude, sounded likely.
And then there was the array of newspaper clippings featuring famous men. While no definite proof exists that these persons were frequent callers at the Jack Davis Hotel, it’s fair to say that they were greatly admired on the east end of Capitol Avenue. Winthrop Rockefeller was one of these, back when he was a black sheep grandson of John D. recently expelled from Yale, and not yet Arkansas’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Others were local notables: Hugh Potter, for instance, president of the River Oaks Corporation, and Texas A&M mega-donor Herman Heep, as well as prominent local attorney George Sears, and J.R. Parten, oilman, chairman of the UT-Austin board of regents, and friend to Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Huey Long.
Soon enough we came across a portrait of little Vicie herself, taken just after she’d become Lucile’s daughter. (It’s uncertain whether Laporte ever made the adoption official.) In it she is wearing a two-tone dress, standing in the doorway of the whorehouse, clutching a shiny toy saxophone and grinning to beat the band. Ohmart told us that Vicie remembered her childhood as idyllic. “Most of the women who worked here had gotten in some kind of trouble,” he said. “Maybe they’d gotten pregnant or got caught having an affair and their husbands threw them out. And a lot of them had kids who they missed, so they spoiled Vicie.”
In addition, Ohmart said, Vicie was always big for her age, a piece of luck she regularly took advantage of, raiding the working girls’ closets and sashaying off to her inner city school proms in Foley’s furs and Sakowitz minks. “They treated her like she was their little doll,” says Eileen Hatcher, Ohmart’s wife.
Still, there was nothing like Christmas on Capitol Avenue. Lucile loved Christmas, and Vicie remembered all her Yuletides being magical. This too seemed likely, as among the photos in Lucile’s scrapbook was one of her parlor transformed into a department store-worthy winter wonderland.
Or, as that Post scribe put it, “Among other homey aspects of Lucile’s place … is an annual Christmas party for the employees there. The most celebrated feature of the function is the Christmas tree, it being Lucile’s annual aim to make her tree the most artfully decorated in the city. In this she is very nearly successful.”